Kurt Elling: ‘You Can Feel When It Works’

Kurt Elling sat at the bar of a favored bistro near his Upper West Side apartment, sipping a beer, cool and relaxed in an untucked shirt, shorts and sandals. He hadn't shaved. Labor Day weekend was over, fall season looming, so, between bites of a crab salad, Elling related his forthcoming itinerary, beginning with a flight from New York to Amsterdam the next evening to rehearse with the Metropole Orchestra for a concert in Bremen. There, the 45-year-old singer, this year's top Male Vocalist in DownBeat's Critics and Readers Polls, would animate Michael Abene's arrangements of pan-Mediterranean repertoire — fado and tango, Neapolitan songs and chansons, gypsy music — that he originally generated in 2010 for a Jazz at Lincoln Center encounter with accordionist Richard Galliano.
In November, Elling would participate in an “American Voices” concert at the Kennedy Center for which soprano Renée Fleming had also convened luminaries Kim Burrell, Josh Groban, Alison Krauss, Norman Lewis and Dianne Reeves to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra. At December concerts in Vienna and Prague, he'd address charts by Bob Mintzer, with up-and-coming vocalist VojtÄ›ch Dyk.

Also in the pipeline was what Elling described as “a play with music,” as yet untitled, with orchestrations contributed by British arranger Guy Barker. Furthermore, Elling was beginning to consider repertoire to present to a dozen arrangers who would each create a separate chart for a February collaboration in Edinburgh with Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, his partners on a still-unreleased CD recorded last spring on which Randy Brecker, Dave Liebman and Joe Locke also played.

After mentioning the SNJO project, Elling sighed and covered his eyes. “I want to come through for Tommy with some new lyrics or tunes because I respect him so deeply as an artist and friend, and for myself because it's such a great opportunity,” he said. “But having to think about it now is still another bifurcation of my mind. I've got to get that and the play done before I can move on to the next studio project. I'm a little buried.”

He added that several of the 20 combo dates that flesh out the remainder of his fall and winter schedule would not include Laurence Hobgood, Elling's pianist and musical consigliere for two decades, who has become busy with numerous projects, including PoemJazz, with former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. “It's an opportunity to start reaching out to forge some other relationships in the piano chair,” Elling said, noting he'd retained the services of Gary Versace for a week on The Jazz Cruise at the end of January. “It's going to bring a different complexion to whatever band I go out with, which is great. What I need more than anything now is rejuvenation. I'm fortunate to have a lot of dates, probably more than I can handle. Hitting the road as hard as I have for as long as I have has been very rewarding, but it's been expensive on my constitution.”

Elaborating on the costs of being a road warrior, Elling emphasized its impact on his creative process. “I did Europe-and-back five times from the beginning of the year until June 1. Japan, too. It got out of control. It doesn't affect my voice, but it wears me out. You're supposed to communicate this beautiful thing, and instead you're just trying not to fold. When I'm on the road, I tend to clam up, build a defense around myself to make it through the day, so when I get on stage I can give all my reserves to the audience and the band. Afterwards, you sign CDs until everybody's gone, you try to be professional and cool, make everybody happy. Then you go back to the hotel and you're alone again, and you've got to pull it together. It's not like you're Sinatra, with a valet who is going to press your suit. All the effort it takes to try to do it right detracts from my energy to write and be open to other things. Even to read. I tend to catch magazines and podcasts, very surface information. I'm still hoping that this fall will be the time to get my head screwed back on straight and dive down deep again.”

Elling's penchant for presenting his musings on fundamental existential issues within the tropes of hardcore jazz expression is one reason why he has remained in the international spotlight since his 1995 Blue Note debut, Close Your Eyes, on which — as on later albums like Man In The Air, Nightmoves and The Gate — he mixed songbook standards, original poem-songs, lyrics to instrumental jazz standards à la Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks, extended free-associative “rants” analogous to Jack Kerouac's “automatic writing” and vertiginous vocalese improvisations, all rendered with virtuoso chops, stagecraft and finesse.

His most recent CD, 1619 Broadway (Concord), emanates from another file of activity. In a 2012 conversation, Elling cited the burdens of travel as a reason for deciding to shelve, perhaps temporarily, a project involving “heavy vocalese writing and jazz arranging” on music by Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Instead, he presented a program of 11 songs conceived at the Brill Building, the colloquial name for the address referenced in the title, between 1934 (Al Dubin and Harry Warren's “I Only Have Eyes For You”) and the late '70s (Paul Simon's “American Tune”).

“I wanted to come across with something that comes out of New York, but not your Cole Porter, American Songbook thing,” said Elling, who moved east from Chicago in 2008. “My manager's office is near the Brill, and I thought I should investigate rockin' that material and see what would come from it.”

Working closely with songwriter Philip Galdston and Hobgood, Elling culled material from a pan-generational cast of songwriters — among them, Lieber and Stoller (“On Broadway” and “Shoppin' For Clothes”), Cahn and Van Heusen (“Come Fly With Me”), Carole King (“So Far Away”) and Burt Bacharach (“A House Is Not A Home”). As he did on the 2001 release Flirting With Twilight, comprising songs associated with grandmasters like Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole and Frank Sinatra, and on Dedicated To You, his 2009 reimagination of the iconic Johnny Hartman-John Coltrane album, Elling embraced the terms of engagement by which these stylistic ancestors operated, transmuting the iconic repertoire into his own argot.

“I just try to do stuff I can get behind emotionally and believe,” Elling said. “Maybe it's as much a matter of not doing things I don't have an idea for. I might want to do a tune, but if neither Laurence or I can figure something out, we probably won't do it. You can feel when it works. It's as much a matter of editing as it is the act of creating.”

Still uncommitted to the theme of his next recording, Elling implied that it might interest him to cull episodes from his various 2013 orchestral events. “It would be nice, singing in a bunch of different languages,” he said. “I probably sing at a different velocity in a room full of people. I didn't grow up singing with a microphone, and I'm very aware of the room's acoustics, how far the guy in the back row is from me. In the studio, you tend to pull back.”

For all the pessimism that he projected when self-analyzing, Elling assessed his future with characteristic bravura and optimism. “I'm at a nice, fat hinge point, the age when you look back and look forward,” he said. “You think about what you're supposed to be doing next, how you're going to pull it off, who you're going to work with, what does it really mean to you now. I don't have a specific strategy, other than to work through it and pay attention like I always do.

“I don't take these polls for granted. I'm grateful for them, because I know at a certain point, it won't be me. It will be a guy who's worked really hard, and I'll be tired, or not touring as much, or in the next stage of my career. I vividly remember being in the 10th row, digging on Mark Murphy or Jon Hendricks or Andy Bey. I say this without false modesty, but a healthy part of me thinks that as long as those guys are performing at all, any one of them should be at the top of the list.”